Residents of cities like New York are familiar with the flexibility of interior spaces. Townhouses built for the rich become working class apartments when a neighborhood loses its luster, or even single-room occupancies. Units in tenements get combined into larger apartments. More recently, and less fortunately, apartments have been getting turned back into townhouses in places like the Upper West Side.
Early residents of LA would have recognized the same patterns. Bunker Hill began as grand Victorian mansions and ended with the mansions carved up into low-cost lodging houses, before the whole area was demolished in an urban renewal scheme. Recent experience in LA is largely limited to the adaptive reuse ordinance (ARO), which resulted in the beneficial conversion of many vacant commercial buildings downtown to residential use. The ARO should be commended and expanded, but the need for it is indicative of how little appreciation we have for how cities once developed.
Residential zoning in LA, like most California cities, separates single-family residences and multi-family buildings, whose density is in turn regulated by a minimum lot area per dwelling unit. Zones are also controlled by a maximum floor-to-area (FAR, floor space of the dwelling units to area of the lot). For example, in LA, the primary single family zone is R1, and two of the main multi-family zones, R3 and R4, require 800 SF and 400 SF of lot area per dwelling unit, respectively. In Glendale, R1 is the most common single-family zone, and there are four main multi-family zones, R-3050, R-2250, R-1650, and R-1250, with the number indicating the required lot area.
Since the demand for housing is high, and many areas have been downzoned, many buildings already have the maximum number of units allowed by the zoning, if not more. In addition, some cities have minimum square footages for apartments, and few buildings have excess parking spaces beyond what’s required by high parking minimums.
As a result, one of the most cost-effective ways of increasing housing supply – remodeling existing buildings to increase the number of units or convert underused spaces into apartments – practically never happens. This is unfortunate, because you really can’t build new housing units at lower costs. The owner already owns the land, and the building is already there; financing costs for both may have already been fully paid off. All you have to do is remodel the interior.
Compare the strict controls of California to Japanese zoning. Japan has exclusively low-rise residential zones, where FAR is 0.3-0.5 and height limits are also not drastically different than in California’s R1 zones. However, unlike California, Japan does not prohibit multi-family development in these zones, and it doesn’t have minimum unit sizes or lot areas. The result is a healthy mix of housing options for people from all walks of life, from students to families to retirees.
We can see a mix of housing options in some places in California; for example, last week’s look at West Wilson Ave in Glendale shows that a mix of housing types can work just as well in California as elsewhere. It’s no coincidence that, if you spend some time walking on W Wilson, you’ll see everyone from retired couples to families with kids, singles to extended families.
Regrettably, LA’s mixed housing neighborhoods are going to be coming under increasing pressure from rising rents. Last week, we mentioned the possibility of a small SFR with a few ADUs being torn down and replaced with a smaller number of larger housing units. But we could also see existing duplexes converted into single-family homes, just like New York’s apartments being turned back into row houses.
Solving LA’s housing crisis is going to require a lot of new construction. But every solution that could help should be on the table. That means we should consider using existing buildings to their best potential too, by giving people the flexibility to create more housing units in existing structures. Zoning changes to allow more units in existing buildings could be designed to serve other goals as well.
For example, the LA region has many older apartment buildings that do not meet current requirements for seismic design. Allowing the building to be remodeled to increase the number of units could be tied to a requirement for seismic retrofitting. Increasing the number of units would help owners cover the cost of retrofits, reducing the need for cash-strapped cities to try to provide tax subsidies. Another option would be to require a few of the new units to be deeded affordable.
LA needs a housing boom, but that doesn’t just mean new construction. Existing buildings can help contribute to meeting our housing needs, and provide some of the best opportunities for affordable units.